This article is meant for the beginning public speaker. And when I say beginning public speaker, I am talking about the young novice delivering his or her first big speech or wedding toast, but I’m also including in this definition a CEO who has been giving speeches for a very long time, but really has not bothered to think and reflect on how his or her speeches come across, how they have bored (and so wasted valuable time for) their sleepy listeners, and how they could have done so much more had they taken this one piece of advice to heart.

As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi has written, “[i]t is not for utilitarian reasons alone that breadth of vocabulary and verbal fluency are among the most important qualifications for success as a business executive. Talking well enriches every interaction, and it is a skill that can be learned by everyone.” The piece of advice is simply this: Do not try to sound like a public speaker. Because if you do, your speech will sound terrible.

The Psychology Behind The Number One Public Speaking Mistake

What happens when you want to sound like a public speaker? You try to say things that other public speakers do. You try to move like they do. You repeat the same lame clichés that everyone else does. There are countless speeches introducing another speaker that end with “without further ado, I want to introduce so-and-so.” That’s boring. There are speeches that begin with “hello, how are you doing?” Silence. “I said, how are you doing?” And people respond. That’s also boring. And there are tons of speeches that fall back on corny jokes because of that.

In the legal world, trial lawyers – who make their living doing public speeches – fall into this trap all the time. They make the mistake of wanting to sound like a lawyer, and suddenly their simple case (which is typically someone stealing from someone else, or their client having been cheated) becomes a verbal mishmash of “wheretofores”, “notwithstanding these facts, I proffer the following, including but not limited to, etc.” They fall into jargon or other lawyerism. A famous judge once said that “it is the second rate intellect that cultivates a pretentious vocabulary and portentous style.” If you’re delivering a speech, do no try to sound like a public speaker. That shows a lack of self-confidence.

One other example to show this: Have you ever been at a hotel, and the bellhop asks you “how may I be of assistance”? This phrase you hear a lot in the service industry. But when scholars studied the origin of this phrase, they found that actually people using this phrase are low-status. Essentially it was poorer individuals imagining high-class individuals talking to each other, and they figured – this is how upper-class folks would talk. But it turns out they were wrong. Upper-class folks simply asked “can I help you.” Very plain, and direct.

So when you deliver a speech, the number one piece of advice I have for you is to please not try to sound like a public speaker. Sound like you’re trying to explain your facts to your grandmother or a fourth grader. Sound like you’re trying to explain your argument to a friend. If you do so, you will find that your language will flow out much more colorfully, and much more passionately. And that is the heart of a great public speech.

I know that this article was not very technique based as my other articles are. But this, I would say, is the number one mistake to avoid.

In The SpotLight, Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking and Performing
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